Written By By Shadrach Hammond - Serving the Public Interest anywhere in the world can be very daunting. This is true to the extent that the concept means different things to different people. Although public interest is pursued everywhere, it is mainly dominated in the public sector and the major character in this plot is the Public Servant. Sometimes, the Public Servant becomes a protagonist or an antagonist. Villain or Saint. Patriotic or Parochial. Rightly so, because they have to make decisions in the public interest. If they got it right, they were praised. “Au contraire” if they got it wrong, the vitriolic attack they got touched their kith and kin.
Public interest has erroneously been perceived as the vocation of the politician. Although largely true, it is also the stock-in-trade of all public servants even the general public who are recipients of the benefits of it. It is akin to a tripod. You need the three to make it solid!
Public Servants are primarily “called” to serve the public interest. The calling comes with a lot of sacrifices. In fact, it’s an ecclesiastical call to pubic duty with few benefits. Benefits such as their reward expected to be in heaven, plump job titles, regular stream of income (albeit meagre), highly influential network and speedy protocols comes to mind. However, the ordeal of the Public Servant outweighs the benefit. He endures everything “P”- the polemic attack on his integrity, poor remuneration in active service and poor pension package at retirement and the list goes on ad infinitum adnauseam.
In the name of serving the public interest, the public servant comes across different characters behind the public service machinery, pursuing different interests. I seek to elucidate the four kinds of interest the modern-day Public Servant may be confronted with in the discharge of their duties in the public sector or space.
Personal Interest: This group of people think about me, myself and I. Their world is full of the unholy doctrine of:“it has to be me and nobody”. Their lens is filled with images of what must come to them. They pretend they are working for the public interest but actively pursue their selfish interest. They are puzzled by why money must be invested in the people and not be direct beneficiaries of it. They flout procedures, processes and protocols to promote and feed their greed. They come to office in the morning with a prepared budget and they must of a necessity hit their target by fair or foul means. Nothing in the organization means anything to them except that which advances their interest. Because they consistently perpetuate their egoistic interest, they lose their professional integrity and the sincerity to serve the public interest. They are the “wolves” among the sheep.
Political Interest: One of the core principles of a Public Servant is neutrality and the willingness to serve the government of the day. Unlike the acolytes of personal interest, their modus operandi is to serve the interest of the political party they support. They sabotage and frustrate the policies and programmes of the government of the day. They wine, dine, twirl and boogie when the government is in difficulty, forgetting that they are also beneficiaries of the success or otherwise of government policies. They, clandestinely investigate their colleagues just to know the parties they support and do everything possible to either get them out or sideline them. In their quest to serve their political interest they leak confidential information and undermine the espirit de corps of the team. They intentionally flout protocols, code of ethics and the oath of secrecy they have sworn when their party is in government. Political power colour their judgement and they feel all others are subservient to them. When their political party is privileged to taste power, they think they are wiser than King Solomon and decide who the Management members should be. They cover their actions and inactions with their god-fathers or the unseen “big-men”.
Professional Interest. Advocates of professional interest, unlike the advocates of personal and political interest follow laid down regulations religiously. They have firm understanding of all the laws of their work -repealed, amended and newly passed. Not only are they good at providing legal references but they could as well quote verbatim. Sometimes they are the “Saviors” of the organization when everyone is taking a nap. At other times, they could be an inhibition to logic and common sense. Plus, their understanding of the Constitution of the Land, they have an encyclopedic understanding of the vision, the values and mission of the organization. Call them the “eye” of the organization and you are palpably right. They have special places on their tables and shelves for the laws and the statutes. I call them the exotic breed of Public Servants. Don’t get me wrong! They are great guys to be proud of as part of any management team, except that they follow the letter and not the spirit of the law. They are traditionally minded and not development oriented. They can get everybody discombobulated with their infatuation of the law. They are unable to decipher between normal times and emergency times and their actions could be detrimental sometimes against the public interest. They are a breed that must be managed and handled with care. Experienced bureaucrats easily get along with them but for the inexperienced they can be nothing else more than a thorn in the flesh of the organization.
Public Interest: This is the highest call to public service or duty. Respondents to this call are firmly entrenched at the tip of the triangle. Perhaps the perfect idea of the New Public Management Theory. They adopt smart, effective and efficient means to serve the public interest. Their kind inspires hope for our generation and posterity. They do not only follow rules and check the boxes but also, they think outside the box to improve the lives of the people they serve. They work with passion and love what they do. There is no end to their work and salary is not their motivation. You cannot bribe nor corrupt them. From dawn to dusk you would get them to support your idea and make things happen. Not only are they reliable but also dependable. They forsake the assembly of the naysayers, the boot lickers, the excuse makers, and the rumor mongers. Service with integrity, humility and a deep sense of patriotism are their hallmark. They are your best bet in any team.
There is no gainsaying that public servants may be pursuing one of these interests either overtly or covertly. Indeed, every day public servants are challenged by some of these competing and compelling interests. Clearly, the choice to serve private, political and professional interests other than the public interest would be injurious and fatal to the public good. It is only the voice of public interest which articulates political neutrality, objectivity, impartiality, transparency and accountability in the interest of the public good that should be upheld. Truly, public servants with this focus leaves an indelible mark in their time and generations to come.
By Shadrach Hammond